20 metres in front of us a bull was servicing a cow. I was trying, really trying, but for the life of me I could not see what the problem was. Frozen with anxiety, the answer was as simple as the answer to 2 plus 2.
Is your manager, or are you, a straight talker or simply a bully?
Does your behavior significantly diminish the performance of your staff? Once upon a time, to be able to terrify your employees into work, was seen as a sign of strength and power. Now, we are a little wiser and we understand this is not only unacceptable, but it simply doesn’t work.
It’s nearly 30 years since I left home and drove more than 3,500km’s across Australia to a job on a cattle property, for a boss I’d never met before or even spoken to on the phone. I was off a farm in NSW and a graduate of agricultural college. At about 21, I was not long in the work force when this opportunity presented itself and I’m glad I went, you know the expression, “it was character building”. However, it could just as easily have been soul-destroying for a different person.
A dog is a mans best friend
I was 3,500 km’s from home, long before mobile phones, back when hardly anyone had a computer much less a connection to the internet. I had a dog and a horse for company, an outdoor dunny, a shower in a rainwater tank, and an angry old man as my boss. A boss who yelled and swore at everything, including me. The sound of his vehicle at 6:00am coming up the track toward the cattle yards near where my caravan was located, caused me physical stress. In fact it manifested itself in an ulcer like ache in my stomach that was immediately triggered by his approach.
His behavior had a profound effect on my ability to function at times. His mismanagement caused me to be reactive, defensive, homesick and miserable. I nearly left, I was close to it, but in those days you just stuck it out. You didn’t throw the towel in. Looking back now, I can laugh as I think of the funny things that happen when you take a frustrated angry old man and mix that with a young man eager to please and unaccustomed to anything other than accolades for his work. For example, the bull and cow scenario, there wasn’t supposed to be a bull in the paddock with these 40 precious stud cows. I couldn’t even see that it was nature at work, breaking the rules in front of my face, I was so anxious with him next to me in the ute firing questions.
Divine intervention, thank the Lord
On one occasion we were drilling holes in a fibreglass fire tank in order to chain it to the utility for the fire season. As I tried to carefully position the drill to get the right spot on the flange, he became impatient and frustrated and began to yell at me, “drill it Peter, Just drill the %#%@&* thing”. Terrified to get it wrong but terrified of being too slow, I just drilled it, as directed. In fact I drilled it straight through the side of the water tank sending a 9mm diameter stream of water rocketing into the air and across the workshop floor. Of course, more yelling, swearing, and frustration.
On another occasion he had me hitting a bent steel door on a piece of machinery, with a pine fence post in a battering ram action. “Hit the thing Peter, hit the %#%@&* thing, come on hit it” he was shouting. I was ramming like I was knocking a castle drawbridge down, when the pole slid off the edge of the target and rocketed into the side of his knee. Divine intervention. Hallelujah! I apologised profusely as he hopped about on one leg yelling and swearing. It was good, so good.
When the time came, I couldn’t leave there fast enough. He organised for me to come back 6 months later for a month. In fact he flew me back across Australia to help prepare for a cattle sale. It was an expensive exercise for him, a little unheard of really. He asked me to stay, but I said no and left as soon as my commitment was over. Later I realised he actually liked and respected me, whereas at the time, I could neither like nor respect him. Six months of time and money he invested in me and I couldn’t leave fast enough.
All these years later I understand why he was the way he was. I understand that the issue was his, not mine, but he made it mine. He was old school and old physically, struggling to do the work he loved, and so he took his frustrations out on me.
Lasting impressions for the better not worse
Then I think of others who had experienced as much and more hardship than he had, others who I’d worked for from a much younger age, who were equally as tough, but were gentlemen in their approach to life, the community and to me. Norm, who still wore his jacket and tie into the paddock and stockyards during a days work in the dirt and dust. Sonny, a Tobruk Rat with a permanent roll your own cigarette affixed to his bottom lip and a yellow toothed cheeky smile that sparkled from his mouth to his eyes, eyes that were wrinkled by seasons of squinting at the sun. Sonny even laughed when a sheep dog bit his butt cheek in the excitement of shearing one day. And Alistair, a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War who flew sorties over France and brought home an English belle to his 1000 acre soldier settlement property. I can only assume she imagined she was headed for the equivalent of an English estate. He will always be larger than life to me. Wonderful characters, wonderful mentors, each in their own ways. People who I respected immensely, who I could be loyal to, and was loyal to, and for whom I tried to work twice as hard to earn their respect.
Whoever you manage, whether they are young and inexperienced or older and more weathered, you have choices. You have a choice about the impact you have on them. You have the ability to earn their respect, not demand it. You have the choice to treat them with equal respect and consideration, and you have the choice to be a positive influence on them, not just for the short time they may work for you, but for their life.
There was a lot more I could have learnt from this angry boss, but I was focused on survival. As a result, he missed out on all the value he could have had from me. I was never going to shine under these unpleasant circumstances. I was never going to be an engaged employee.